A sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent: all around us the world is hustling and bustling toward Christmas. With less and less time devoted to the telling of the Christmas story, perhaps we in the Church might consider changing the lectionary so as to provide more opportunities to engage the birth narrative in Matthew. Advent 3 is a perfect opportunity to substitute two readings into the lectionary. Here’s what happened when we tried this:
Readings Matthew 1:1-17 and Matthew 1:18-24
Listen to the sermon here
It has been said that the shortest distance between humanity and the truth is a story. I would add that, the truth we find in a story teaches about our humanity. So, as we seek to embrace our humanity we would do well to pay close attention to the stories we tell. The unknown writer of the Gospel according to Matthew had a great story to tell and in order to get to the truth of who and what the man Jesus was, he chose a particular way to tell the story so that all those who heard the story would know the truth of who Jesus is in the grand scheme of humanity’s story. Sadly over the centuries that have elapsed since this story was first told have seen the tellers and listeners of this story haggle over the truth. Some have forgotten the power of story to bridge the gap between humanity and truth, and they have insisted that the truth will be found in the absolute accuracy of each and every detail. Fortunately, many more have remembered that stories are just that, they are stories and while we know that events did not actually happen in they way they are told, they happen just that way all the time.
So, as we begin in the beginning of the Gospel, the Good News according to Matthew, let me remind you that we know that the story of Jesus birth did not happen the way it is told in the story, and we know that birth is always happening this way. For the writer of the Gospel according to Matthew was a skilled storyteller and he wrapped the story of Jesus of Nazareth in the stories of his ancestors. Written in the style of his own ancestors the gospel-writer begins his story, with the same words that every one of his listeners would have remembered from the sacred book of Genesis which begins, “In the beginning”. A sort of once upon a time, if you will, the gospel-writer begins with, the genesis of Jesus the Messiah and then proceeds to connect Jesus to the ancestors of the Jewish faith, will making sure that the truth of Jesus’ connection to those outside the faith will also be made clear.
The gospel-writer’s inclusion of the women who Bishop John Shelby has dubbed the “shady ladies” would have alerted Jewish listeners that Jesus is a different kind of Messiah; a Messiah who will transcend race, creed, or clan. Rahab, who was a Canaanite; a foreigner, was known as the mother of Israel for saving Joshua in Canaan, just happened to run a brothel there. Tamar, also a foreigner, was married to Judah’s son who according to Genesis is killed by God, and as was the custom his younger brother married her to ensure that his older brother’s name would be carried on. When that son dies, Tamar is left a childless widow, a fate worse than death in a patriarchal culture. Tamar is known for impersonating a prostitute to trick Judah into knowing her, in the biblical sense of the verb to know, so that her father-in-law could impregnate her.
Ruth is also a foreign woman, a Moabite, who saves herself and her mother-in-law Naomi by seducing her wealthy cousin Boaz. Bathsheba, another foreigner, a Hitite married to David’s general Uriah the Hitite, is infamous for having been taken by King David’s soldiers to King David’s bed-chamber, because David has been so distracted by his lust for Bathsheba that he is willing to risk his empire in order to bed the wife of a trusted comrade whom he later has murdered in order to hide his own adultery.
These foreign women have a role to play in the gospel-writers story as he wraps their story around the story of Jesus. The gospel-writer will end the story of Jesus where he began with a foreigner, when he has the centurion at the cross declare that truly, Jesus was the son of God. The gospel-writer uses foreigners as book-ends to drive home his belief that Jesus is more than a Messiah for the Jewish people.
As the story continues the gospel-writer declares that Jesus is Emmanuel, a name that means, “God is with Us.” So right from the start, we will know what the gospel-writer will end the story of Jesus with, when he has Jesus declare, “Remember, I AM with you always; yes, even to the end of time.” The gospel-writer will weave his story of Jesus in a way that will ensure that all will know the truth that Emmanuel, “God with us” is what Jesus is all about.
But wait, I’m getting ahead of the story. Once the scene is set, the story of the birth must be told. But wait, it is Advent after all, a time for waiting, waiting in the darkness of winter for the light to come. So, as we wait, let me begin my story with a story; a story that begins in darkness, a story from the Jewish tradition about waiting for the long night of tribulation to end.
Once upon a time, a rabbi asked his students how they could tell when night had ended and day was beginning. “Could it be,” asked one of his brightest students, “When you can see an animal in the distance and you are able to tell it is a sheep or a dog?”
“No,” answered the rabbi.
“Could it be,” another student asked, “when you can look at a tree and tell whether it is a fig tree or a peach tree?”
“No,” said the rabbi.
“Well, then, when is it that we can tell when the long night of darkness has ended?” the students demanded.
The rabbi smiled and answered, “You will know that the long night of darkness has ended when you can look into the face of any woman or man and see that they are your sister or your brother. Because if you cannot do this, no matter what time it is, it is still night.”
Well the gospel-writer’s story of Jesus continues not with the birth of Jesus but with a story about the circumstances of the pregnancy that will lead to the birth. In order to tell this story, the gospel-writer employs what New Testament scholars call a literary device; a literary device who comes in the guise of an ancestor of the faith. Joseph the hero of old; a dreamer of sorts who is pivotal in saving the Jewish people by engineering their escape from famine by enticing them to safety in Egypt. The gospel-writer’s Joseph is a unique character who eludes as much as he elucidates. Standing there behind the babe in the manger, sheltering, keeping watch. But while we barely notice him, the gospel-writer’s first audiences would have seen him standing proudly in the traditions of their ancestors. Perhaps the most important of those traditions is his namesake Joseph’s reputation for being chaste. The gospel-writer’s early audiences would have remembered well the stories of Joseph’s refusal to sleep with Potiphar’s wife. Chastity is precisely the attribute needed in a literary device, especially if you just happen to be a writer who is not particularly good at checking your sources. You see, the gospel-writer made a crucial error in telling his story and compounded a translation error that has been haunting women for centuries. I’m not going to go into the details today, that’s Mary’s story and we will look more closely at her story next Sunday. Suffice it to say that when the gospel-writer quotes the prophet Isaiah, he should have checked the original Hebrew sources, but alas for the church and more importantly for all the women who have been oppressed by the church, our gospel-writer contented himself with quoting a poor Greek translation of the Hebrew and all of a sudden, the Scripture that reads in Hebrew as a “Young women is pregnant and has born a son.” is re-transcribed from a Greek translation so that it will forever read in further translations as “A virgin shall conceive and bear a son.” Even though young women become pregnant and bear children all the time without being virgins, poor old Mary is doomed by a transcription error to perpetual virginity.
But I digress; let me just say that if you’re telling the story of a Messiah who you want to be born of a virgin, you’d better make sure that your literary device is chaste enough not to have intercourse with your virgin until after the baby is born. Indecently, do you know why the vast majority of artistic representations of Joseph portray him as an old man? Well the church saw to it that artists were sure to portray the earthly father of Jesus as one who, even if he were willing to, he was well past being able to get it…to get in the way of the story of a virgin giving birth and staying a virgin forever and ever amen. It wasn’t until after the Reformation that anyone ever dared to depict Joseph as a young man. To this day the Roman Catholic church insists on the perpetual virginity of Mary, so those brothers and sisters of Jesus that are mentioned in the New Testament, well they were either Jesus cousins, or Joseph was such an old man that he was married once before, a widower perhaps who had children by a previous wife, so those brothers and sisters were actually step-brothers and sisters, and Mary’s virginity remains intact.
So, apart from chastity, the gospel-writer’s literary device also shared Joseph’s penchant for being visited by angels in dreams. After Joseph’s father dies he becomes the protector of his father’s children. There’s a kindness to Joseph who even though they wronged him deeply, Joseph finds in in his heart to protect and nurture his siblings. The gospel-writer’s first audiences would have had no trouble transferring their ancestor Joseph’s characteristics onto the father of Jesus, who becomes the quintessential embodiment of chastity, faithfulness and kindness. They would have been more than willing to see the fledging Messiah flee under Joseph’s protection to the relative safety of Egypt. The gospel-writer is skilled in the art of mixing the extraordinary stories of the ancestors with the ordinary messiness of new birth. The story reeks of ordinariness. What could be more natural, more ordinary, more repeated throughout human history than two people and their families planning a marriage? What could be more devastating than discovering that things aren’t about to go exactly to plan? What could be more ordinary than an unexpected, inconvenient pregnancy?
In the darkness of the stuff of life, it is our dreams that enable us to rise above our pain. In our dreams, we can see visions not of what is but of what might be. In our dreams, we can see a more enlightened version of ourselves. In our dreams, we can travel beyond our abilities to bear the darkness into the light.
Our gospel-writer is skilled in the art of story-telling to get at the truth. For God is with us. Our God dwells in with and through us. The ordinary stuff of life might distract us from this truth. But if we have the courage to venture into the darkness, to dream, we will encounter the One who dwells in us and gives us the courage to bring new life to birth. In Joseph, we can see the story of lives in tatters; life is messy. The challenges we face cannot be met unless we are willing to open ourselves to the power and the strength that lies within. The truth of our humanity is that God is with us; Emmanuel.
There’s an old Jewish story, that I’m sure I’ve told you before but like all good stories it bears repeating.
Once there was a monastery with a long history of commerce and a thriving spiritual community. But as time wore on, fewer and fewer villagers visited the hallowed halls. Fewer people turned to the monastery for advice. Even the sale of their famous wines began to dwindle. The abbot began to despair for his community. “What should they do?” he wondered.
They prayed daily for guidance, but the brothers only became more dispirited. The monastery itself reflected their mood, becoming shabby and untidy. At last the Abbot, hearing that a wise Jewish rabbi was visiting, swallowed his pride and went to visit the rabbi to ask his advice. The abbot and the rabbi visited for a long time. They talked of their respective religions, and the fickleness of human nature. The abbot explained his problem to the rabbi and asked for advice, but the Jewish sage only shook his head and smiled. As the abbot sadly departed, the rabbi suddenly rose and shouted after him, “Ah, but take heart my friend for the Messiah lives amongst you!” All the way home the abbot pondered the rabbi’s words, “The Messiah lives amongst you.”
What could he mean? Did the Messiah live in the abbey? The abbot knew all the brothers very well. Could one of them really be the Messiah? Surely he, the abbot, was not the Messiah… Was it possible?”
Upon reaching the monastery the abbot confided the rabbi’s words to another brother, who told another brother, who was overheard telling another brother. Soon the whole abbey had heard the news. “The Messiah lives amongst us!”
“Who do you suppose he could be?” As each brother speculated on who the Messiah could be, his view of his brothers began to change. Brother Louis no longer appeared simple, but rather innocent. Brother Jacques was no longer uncompromising, but rather striving for spiritual perfection. The brothers began to treat each other with greater respect and courtesy; after all, one never knew when he might be speaking to the Messiah. And, as each brother discovered that his own words were taken seriously, the thought that he might become the Messiah would cross his humble mind. He would square his shoulders and attend his work with greater care and start acting like a Messiah. Soon the neighboring villages began to notice the change that had come over the monastery. The brothers seemed so happy. Villagers flocked to the monastery and were energized by the spirit of the Brothers. And so, the spirit grew and the monastery flourished. As each new brother was welcomed, the question arose, “Could he be the Messiah?” Apparently, the monastery still prospers today and it is often whispered both within its walls and in the surrounding towns that the Messiah lives amongst them.
As you celebrate Christmas this year, remember that the Messiah lives among you. If you are waiting for perfection, Christmas is going to be a lonely and frustrating time. If you are waiting for some future time, the wonders of this moment will pass you by. If you are expecting salvation outside yourself, you might miss your own wisdom. If you hold your loved ones to impossible standards you just might miss the Messiah who sits right next to you. Emmanuel, God is with us in the darkness and by the power that dwells within we can find the strength to venture into the light. The Messiah is arriving in you and right next to you! Emmanuel! God is with us!
God is with us in the darkness
and by the power that dwells within
we can find the strength
to venture into the light.
The Messiah is arriving in you
and right next to you!
God is with us!
God our beloved,
And Love itself!
 Anthony de Mello, SJ, One Minute Wisdom, NY: Doubleday, 1986, p.23.
This sermon relies heavily upon the work of John Shelby Spong’s book Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy a Journey into a New Christianity Through the Doorway of Matthew’s Gospel”